April 25th, 2010
Sunset is one of the most beautiful times of any day, but it is also its end: while it may be magical, and it may capture the beauty of the natural world, it is also the beginning of the night.
Walter White is in the process of rediscovering the magic of chemistry, cooking meth in an environment where it feels like every bit the accomplishment of science that he has always believed it is. However, at the same time, his day may be coming to an end: just as he has finally found an environment where his rationalizations surrounding his involvement in the drug trade are being supported at every turn, his brother-in-law is getting closer than ever to discovering the perversity of his notion of “child support.” And just as said brother-in-law, Hank, is getting closer than ever to solving the case which has given him the run-around for months, he quickly becomes collateral damage in Walt’s own sunset of sorts.
Unquestionably the season’s best episode so far, “Sunset” mines both tension and introspection from the magic, and terror, which comes with the end of each day, drawing the battle lines for what is going to be an intense conflict in the episodes ahead.
I’m sure that there are some out there who would claim that this was the season’s best episode by default because it only featured a single scene with Skyler – personally, I’ve come around to Anna Gunn’s performance, and I think it’s been important part of the journey up to this point, but I think that her lack of presence was part of what made the episode stand out. Thus far this season, the direct opposition has been between Skyler and Walt, and while this has allowed Skyler as a character to develop into something far more interesting than she was in previous seasons, there is still an element of spousal squabbling which sort of domesticates the show’s conflict. With the Cousins and the larger threats against Walt’s life entirely disconnected from Walt himself, we haven’t seen Walt react to some of the big picture threats against his life, and we haven’t seen much in the way of suspense or tension where our lead characters are themselves aware of the tension involved.
But this time around, “no more drama” appeared to be the goal on Walt’s mind: he gives Skyler her divorce (just as she was warming to the idea of spending his money) so that he can be a man and cook meth without trying to hold his marriage together at the same time, hoping to avoid all of the conflict in favour of his own quest for personal satisfaction. And with the help of his new lab assistant (played ably by Dave Costabile), he turns the lab into a world of magic, finding someone who makes him amazing coffee and whose libertarian point of view perfectly matches up with how Walt’s been justifying this to himself for months. Yes, Walt likes the power of his financial position, buying a model unit fully furnished and completing supporting his children within the stipulations of the divorce, but he likes the magic just a little bit more. It was the magic that made it so intoxicating, and it was the magic that was lost when things became too complicated during the second season. Walt, like Jesse and his crew, want things to go back to the way they were before they got too ambitious, and before Combo was killed and Walt’s marriage and Jesse’s entire life fell apart.
The problem is that Walt has a safety net in Gus, someone who is protecting him from the Cousins and who has given him an ideal work environment that is entirely protected from the world around him. Jesse, while far more committed to the villainy of the drug trade, lacks those resources, and so he can’t promise Badger and Skinny Pete that it won’t be exactly like it was before. Jesse is a changed man, able to conquer his own battle with drugs while still contributing to the battles of others, but he is not living in a changed world: Hank is still out there trying to hunt him down, and there is no Gus there to keep that inevitability from ending his journey.
Except for Walt, that is. What really struck me about this episode is that all of the previous drama between Walt and Jesse this year was more or less forgotten: once Walt realized how close Hank was to the R.V. (thanks to Hank unknowingly tipping him off by trying to get some information from him), he becomes Jesse’s Gus of sorts. Trapped in the R.V. at the junkyard, Jesse’s anger having driven him to confront Walt and lead Hank directly to their location, the drama between them ends: at that point, it is a tense game of survival, Jesse’s panic being mitigated by Walt’s steely determinism. With the help of a quick-thinking junkyard owner and Walt’s knowledge of Hank’s personal life, they eventually escape their situation, and even then Walt and Jesse understand the gravity of their situation: they don’t bicker over profits or wage war over territory, but rather watch as their R.V. is destroyed, an artifact of their past which is very clearly not going to be recaptured any time soon.
There are just a whole lot of really fantastic scenes within that sequence: I loved Walt’s nostalgic trip through the R.V., seeing the Funions in the box and uncovering the various materials, realizing that even without fancy machinery there is something magical about that R.V., something about it which seems so romantic and simple; I loved the lighting throughout the sequence, especially when Hank took the pieces of tape off of the bullet holds and the dots of light showed up on Walt’s body; I also loved the shots from within the R.V. as it was being destroyed, which weren’t particularly original but nicely captured the final blow to the show’s innocent past. It was just all really evocative and really tense, the sort of tension that lacks any sort of personal drama and draws all of its suspense from just the situation at hand; once emotions enter the picture, as Walt gets Saul to place Marie in (false) mortal danger, the situation comes to an end, overcomplicated by the burdens of emotional connection (which sounds terrible, but to some degree it’s what Walt and Jesse are both trying to accomplish right now).
It was just a really tight episode: there were some fun callbacks to previous seasons (like Jesse asking the mechanic to include a buzzer for when the keys are left in the ignition), some great moments of comedy (Riverdancing Badger, who I’m very glad to have back), and that final scene of terror as Gus uses Hank to satisfy the Cousins’ desire for revenge. It’s one of those episodes which manages to be contemplative (as in Walt’s conversations with his new assistant, Gale) and tense at the same time, drawing parallels and oppositions across the entire series and creating a fairly cohesive episode out of a fairly chaotic situation. Yes, the Cousins are a little bit too broad at points (which was clear when their sit-in at the restaurant lacked any dynamism, attempting to leverage their earlier brutality to limited effect), but they are only part of a growing sense of dread which threatens to destroy whatever magic that Walt or Jesse may think they can find in those mess of a life.
- Great use of music in both Walt’s “getting ready for work” montage and in the Meth-making montage – just some really evocative scenes, picking up nicely on the whimsy of the lab’s introduction.
- I enjoy that Walt would make a reference to “I’m not David Copperfield”: it totally fits his age that he would have a very clear memory of David Copperfield, even if his current pop cultural cache is (sadly) pretty limited.
- Wasn’t a huge fan of the opening scene, as I’m finding the Cousins stuff lacks any connection to the main episode, but loved the sound design on the flagpole workings blowing in the wind. It was just really creepy, and shows an attention to detail which does make the Cousins sequences connect to the rest of the series.
- Enjoyed that the picture in Walt’s new condo is of a sunset – neat touch.